A Northwoods Almanac for June 8 – 21, 2018 by John Bates
5/17: Judith Bloom emailed me a photograph with this note: “One of the Tomahawk Lake loon pairs has nested successfully every year on the same very small island. They have produced at least one chick every year since 2012 from the same nest. Ice out was May 9th, and on May 17th we observed a Canada Goose nesting on the island with a pair of loons ‘hanging around’ very nearby. They are now both nesting on the tiny island! We saw the loons changeover yesterday afternoon. We find it hard to believe that the Canada Goose is tolerating this.” Judith’s photo shows the loon and the goose only about five feet apart!
|photo by Judith Bloom|
5/29: Callie saw our first fireflies of the year in Manitowish.
5/31: We saw our first sphinx moth (hummingbird moth) of the year working over our hanging basket of petunias. We couldn’t get a good picture, so we’re unsure of the species, but I think it might have been a snowberry clearwing). Hopefully we’ll see more of him/her.
5/30: Prodigious numbers of silver maple seeds have been falling throughout the wetlands that are around our home. We’re now in our 35th year of living here, and I can’t remember any year with this many silver maple seeds. This strategy of going to seed quickly in late spring is timed so the silver maple seeds fall on exposed soils as floodwaters recede in wetlands.
5/31: Mary and I conducted our second frog count of the year in western Vilas County, and most notable were the many vociferous eastern gray tree frogs. Their very short and very loud staccato call reminds me of quick machine gun burst.
6/1: On a drive through Powell Marsh on Hwy. 47, the vast bog looked like a snowstorm had hit due to the abundance of flowering cotttongrass.
6/2: Sarah Krembs spotted three American golden plovers on the Powell Marsh Wildlife Management Area, demonstrating that the shorebird migration north is still taking place. American golden plovers nest in the Arctic tundra, so these birds still have a long flight ahead of them. However, these three have likely already flown a long way. Overwintering occurs primarily on the pampas of Argentina and the campos of Uruguay. Of 42 banding recoveries of American golden plovers, five birds had migrated very long distances – 2,200 to 5,000 miles.
|photo by Sarah Krembs|
6/3: The first reports are coming in of turtles laying eggs.
6/3: Shrubs in flower right now include various dogwoods, nannyberries, and highbush cranberries. Bunchberry, our smallest native dogwood, is also currently in flower. Other flowering shrubs and small trees have come and gone in very rapid succession, such as crabapples, juneberries, apples, pears, plums, and lilacs. It’s been a fast transition into summer! Don’t blink or you’ll miss the flowers.
6/4: Judith Bloom on Lake Tomahawk photographed a great crested flycatcher perched on a shepherd’s hook in her yard. Great crested are woodland insect eaters, so having one come to a seed feeder in one’s yard is quite uncommon. One study of 265 great crested stomachs found their diet to contain 93% animal and 6% small fruits. Animal matter consisted of 21% butterflies and moths, 16% beetles,15% grasshoppers and crickets, 14% bugs, 13% bees and wasps, and smaller percentages of various flies, other insects, and spiders.
|photo by Judith Bloom|
Canada Goose Molt Migration
You may have noticed a lot of geese flying low in flocks in recent days, and the reason is that they’re undergoing their “molt migration.” These flocks are typically made up of first- and second-year non-breeders as well as adult birds that failed to nest or lost their broods. They’re flying north a distance of a few miles to 900 miles to isolated places where they will be safe to molt their flight feathers. Their migrations appear to be always northward to large lakes to take advantage of plants in earlier stages of growth.
A study at Crex Meadows in western WI found that first-year birds and non-nesting pairs formed flocks in early May and remained together until departing on their molt-migration in late May to early June. In fact, 97% of the non-nesters and 90% of the unsuccessful nesting pairs had migrated by mid-June. Later band recoveries indicated that some of these geese molted in the Hudson Bay lowlands of northern Manitoba, over 800 miles north of Crex Meadows. Another study of individual geese from southeastern Michigan showed that they make an annual molt-migration 300 miles north to Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Bear Lake Road – Woodcocks, Nighthawks, Whip-poor-wills
On 5/31, Mary and I conducted our second frog count, and to get to one of our count spots, we had to traverse Bear Lake Road, which is west of Boulder Junction off of Cty. K. Portions of this road were clearcut in the last few years, and over these years within the clearcut areas we have regularly hear woodcocks, nighthawks, and whip-poor-wills. This night was no exception. We heard at least four whip-poor-wills endlessly singing to defend their territories, heard numerous woodcocks “peenting,” and perhaps most impressively, had a nighthawk perform its courtship “booming” dives three different times right next to our car.
If you’ve not heard this sound, there’s no way you’d connect it to a bird, nor for that matter to any living thing that I know of! The “booming” sounds are thought to be produced only by the male, and are made by air rushing through their primary feathers after a sudden dive. They dive at heights from 15 to 90 feet at about a 70° angle with the ground, and then turn back upward at about 10 feet from the ground. The booms are only made as mating and territorial displays.
“Booming” just doesn’t do the sound justice. To hear the sound, go to:
Since the birds display most commonly after dusk (they peak at 30-45 minutes after sunset), it’s difficult to see them diving. But if the light’s just right, occasionally you can view them. Nighthawks also give a flight call note that’s quite similar to the peenting of a woodcock, but is much more frequent. One author writes that it sounds like someone whispering the word “beard.”
Birds Eating Flower Petals
5/23: Our flowering crabapple trees and apple trees blossomed this day, and by early afternoon, a flock of cedar waxwings was busy eating the flower petals.
I’ve been distressed by this activity in the past, worrying that they are killing the flowers, and thus the fruit. But they appear to just eat the petals, not the central part of the flower where the stamens and ovary are located. Petals are, after all, just an advertising device to attract pollinators, and they perform no actual function beyond that – all the reproductive work is done in the ovary of the flower.
As one of the most common fruit-eating birds of North America throughout the year, and among the few avian fruit specialists, cedar waxwings likely play a key ecological role in dispersal of seeds. They may well be one of the best “Johnny Appleseeds” of birds because of their very mobile lifestyle.
An analysis of the stomachs of 212 birds collected from the eastern U.S. found that fruit constitutes 84% of their annual diet, flower parts 4%, and insect prey 12% Their winter diet averages 100% fruit.
But in May an abrupt change in diet occurs, with fruit dropping to about 15% of diet, while flowers comprise 44% of diet. Both changes appear related to seasonal changes in availability of dietary items; fruit crops are depleted, while spring brings an abundance of flowers. The flowers provide plant sugars (sucrose), but also contain at least two other potential nutritional components of significance to waxwings: protein in pollen and carotenoids in petals.
One of the Greatest Days Ever Worldwide in Bird Counting
I saw this astonishing report on eBird, and it’s worth quoting at some length (text by Ian Davies on May 28, 2018, at Tadoussac Dunes in Quebec, about 130 miles northeast of Quebec City):
“Today was the greatest birding day of my life . . . On our arrival (5:45 a.m.) [at Tadoussac dunes], it was raining. A few warblers passed here and there, and we got excited about groups of 5-10 birds. Shortly before 6:30 a.m., there was a break in the showers, and things were never the same.
“For the next 9 hours, we counted a nonstop flight of warblers, at times covering the entire visible sky from horizon to horizon. The volume of flight calls was so vast that it often faded into a constant background buzz. There were times where there were so many birds, so close, that naked eyes were better than binoculars to count and identify. Three species of warblers flew between my legs throughout the day. For hours at a time, a single binocular scan would give you hundreds or low thousands of warblers below eye level.
“The flight line(s) varied depending on wind direction and speed . . . When calm, birds were high . . . High winds brought birds down low, sometimes feet from the ground and water. Rain also lowered birds, and the most intimate experiences with migrants occurred during a rain squall and strong wind period.
“Counting birds and estimating species composition was the biggest challenge of the day—balancing the need to document what was happening with the desire to just bask in the greatest avian spectacle I’ve ever witnessed. A significant effort was made to estimate movement rates throughout the day . . . Total number of warblers: 721,620.
“To our knowledge, the previous warbler high for a single day in the region was around 200,000, which was the highest tally anywhere in the world. Other observers in the area today had multiple hundreds of thousands, so there were likely more than a million warblers moving through the region on 28 May 2018.”
Specific species totals included estimates of 144,324 bay-breasted warblers, 108,243 Cape May warblers, 108,243 magnolia warblers, 72,162 Tennessee warblers, 72,162 yellow-rumped warblers, 50,513 American redstarts, 28,865 Blackburnian warblers, and 109,426 warblers they were unable to identify in flight.
Black Flies and Loons
Mary and I were watching a common loon adult incubating eggs on the Gile Flowage very close to Hwy. 51, when we noticed him/her off the nest and swimming nearby. We drove by again a few hours later, and the loon was nowhere to be seen.
Several days later we again drove by and the nest appeared to be abandoned. We both wondered aloud if black flies had forced the adults off the nest.
That same day, 5/27, we saw this note on Walter Piper’s blog (Walter has been studying loons in our area for over 30 years): “Last week was a tense one. Dozens of [loon] pairs had laid one or two eggs, but black flies descended on them, making incubation impossible for most. Of the fifteen or so pairs with nests last week, only two incubated at all, and one of these pairs sat only during the first twenty minutes of our observations . . . All other pairs spent their time in the general vicinity of the nest, but diving frantically, shaking and tossing their heads, even snapping their bills fruitlessly at the relentless biting insects . . . I feared another dreadful year of nest abandonments, like 2017.
“What a difference a week makes! While not altogether gone, the flies are dwindling rapidly. Breeders that could only view their eggs from afar 7 days ago are back on them . . . they have overcome the first major hurdle.”
THE celestial event of this two-week period is, of course, the summer solstice on 6/21 which will provide us our longest day of the year – 15 hours and 45 minutes. Our northernmost sunrise will occur at 5:08 a.m. with sunset at 8:53 p.m.
After dusk, look for brilliant Venus low in the northwest, Jupiter bright in the southeast, and Saturn rising in the southeast. Before dawn, look for Mars rising in the southeast.